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John J. Kruzel - American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2009 - With violence levels greatly reduced, meddling from outside influences is a concern surrounding upcoming Iraqi elections, a U.S. commander in Iraq said today.
Army Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of Multinational Division Center, said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged that Baghdad will do all it can to prevent defrauding of the Jan. 31 provincial elections by internal and external forces.
"We agree with [Maliki] that everybody should let Iraqis make their own decisions in this election," he told reporters at a news conference in Baghdad. "What's important to Iraq is that elections be seen as credible, and my only concern is that outside influences may interfere."
Oates described such meddling as everything from "soft-power" tactics such as a foreign entity endorsing a candidate through political posters, leaflets and information campaigns to outright violence up to election day.
U.S. forces around the country are preparing to support Iraqi security forces in the event of possible violence surrounding the balloting. Army Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, discussed potential election saboteurs in a Jan. 12 media briefing. "It's pretty clear what they'd be going after," he said. "It's to sway the hearts and the minds -- to intimidate those civilians from going and voting."
In today's news conference, Oates said Multinational Division Center troops are prepared to work with Iraqi security forces, which have taken the lead to ensure the elections occur safely and smoothly. The most likely security threat facing the electorate in his area of operations, the general said, comes from splinter groups of militia members who are disobeying a ceasefire order from the Iranian-influenced Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The general said a small number of such groups are responsible for much of the region's violence. He added that the fact that attacks aimed at coalition forces are decreasing while violence aimed at Iraqi forces rises indicates the groups' intention of fomenting internal chaos.
Meanwhile, Oates said, al-Qaida's role has become "severely degraded" in the southern part of his jurisdiction, despite the terror organization's attempts over the past months to regenerate. But he cautioned that al-Qaida still is capable of launching "spectacular attacks." In large part, though, members of Jaysh al-Mahdi, Sadr's armed constituency, are complying with their leader's order to lay down arms, he added.
Oates expressed some concern that some of Iran's influence in Iraq takes the form of humanitarian aid. Helping Iraq's Shiite poor and supporting hospitals works to provide "significant influence in terms of soft power" for Iraq's neighbor to the east among Iraqis. But extremist Iranian elements might be motivated to ramp up "lethal activity" as elections near, he added.
Still, Oates predicted a safe election, and said that the challenge afterward will be ensuring a smooth transition of power.
"My hope is that those who are disappointed don't take out their disappointment in violence," he said.